There’s no getting around it: Hal Gill is a big man. At 6-foot-7 and 241 pounds, the 37-year-old defenseman doesn’t exactly blend in with a crowd. Not even a crowd of NHL hockey players.
“We were in Detroit and someone said ‘Is Hal Gill out there?’ ” Predators head coach Barry Trotz says. “And I’m like, ‘You don’t know our team very well.’ He stands out a little bit.”
Unfortunately for Trotz and the Predators, their giant trade acquisition—picked up from Montreal 10 days prior to the Feb. 27, 2012, trade deadline for his size, post-season experience and penalty killing prowess—wasn’t out there at all for Nashville’s first-round playoff series against the Detroit Red Wings. A lower-body injury prevented Gill from competing. The Predators dispatched the Wings in five games, regardless, giving Gill more time to recover. Now, the veteran of 105 playoff games and winner of a Stanley Cup championship with Pittsburgh in 2009 could make his 2012 post-season debut Friday night as Nashville begins Round 2 action in Arizona.
“He’s a big, strong guy,” winger Patric Hornqvist says. “He’s great on the [penalty kill]. And he plays really strong in front of our net. So of course we need him in the playoffs. I don’t know if he’s ready or not but if he’s going to be back, he’s going to improve our team.”
When the Predators acquired Gill in February, they ranked 16th among NHL teams at defusing opposing teams’ power play opportunities. Due in large part to Gill’s presence, the team’s penalty kill efficiency climbed to 10th overall by the final day of the regular season. But Gill, a popular guy in the locker room, brings more than his defensive skills to this team. He’s a superb communicator as well, both on and off the ice.
“Hal’s great,” Trotz says. “Hal talks about the game a lot. He’s an old pro. He wants to get better at what his role is. He’s good at helping young guys. He’s good at having good questions in terms of power play/penalty kill. ... He’s got a lot of experience. Guys lean on him for that. And the coaches lean on him for that too.”
“I think everybody knows that he likes to talk,” captain Shea Weber says. “There’s nothing wrong with that. He’s fun to have in the locker room. He loosens up the guys. He’s been around for a long time and he knows different situations. He knows when to loosen guys up and he knows when to be serious.”
Gill carries his talkative nature onto the ice as well, communicating with teammates more than the typical player might.
“He’s always talking out there, which makes things easier, especially on the [penalty kill],” defenseman Kevin Klein says. “We’re always yelling at each other. With a lot of younger guys, a lot of times they’re a little hesitant about being vocal, but slowly as they gain more confidence they’re starting to be vocal too. So it just helps as an overall thing.”
“I want to try and control as much as I can on the ice and when you’re talking to your teammates you can control a lot,” Gill says. “I can’t control what they’re going to do but if I can give a heads up to one of my teammates, where I’m going to be or what’s coming at them or whatever it is—talking to our goalies—I try to talk as much as I can.”
Gill’s combination of wisdom, experience and communication has been invaluable for everyone from Weber—who says he’s learned how to block shots by watching Gill—to one of the team’s smallest players, rookie defenseman Ryan Ellis.
“We obviously play two different styles of games,” the 5-foot-10, 179-pound Ellis says. “He obviously deals one way with the speedy guys and I have to deal another way with the bigger guys. We’ve talked about a few different things and just how to kind of push guys off balance and whatnot, which is kind of big for me to kind of win those battles.”
If Gill wasn’t noticeable enough before, he’s now adopted the Mohawk hairstyle that is trending through the Predators locker room. It’s an outward sign of how the team’s elder statesman is a team player—one that teammates respect and listen to. The Predators acquired Gill for his defensive skills and his experience, but it may turn out that his ability to relate to others could be his biggest asset.
“He knows what we need to go through to win the Cup,” Hornqvist says. “It’s a long way there but he’s the only guy on our team who has a Cup, so he’s a big leader off and on the ice.”